Maryland senior launches program to reduce food waste

August 29, 2012

A University of Maryland College Park senior is fighting hunger, reducing waste and turning his food-recovery efforts into a lasting career.

After winning a national youth entrepreneur competition last month for his program that repurposes unused food to feed the hungry, Ben Simon is on track to launch a national collaborative effort from what began as a small campus group.

The 23-year-old government and politics major from Silver Spring said he created Food Recovery Network with several classmates in September and since has donated 60,000 pounds of food, or 48,000 meals, that otherwise would have been thrown out.

Food Recovery Network began as a program that involved collecting unused prepared foods from the University of Maryland’s dining services department and delivering them to nearby charities in Prince George’s County and the District.

The group has increased its collections to several on-campus fast-food restaurants and upped the intake by purchasing a new refrigerator. He said roughly 200 student volunteers on campus have donated their vehicles and expenses such as gas in order to deliver the food.


University of Maryland, College Park senior Mia Zavalij and Riverdale Park-based Christian Life Center member Eric Thomas look at the Food Recovery Network’s latest bundle of food trays, used to transport and distribute surplus food to families in need. The group is credited with recovering more than 60,000 pounds of unused food since September 2011. (Daniel J. Gross/THE GAZETTE)

Mia Zavalij, the university’s chapter coordinator for FRN, is one of the organization’s co-founders and said the idea’s genesis came from simply living and eating on campus and discovering the quantities of food that were going to waste.

Simon said he and the group members began to look at the issue of hunger and food waste as a national issue and decided to reach out to other college campuses across the nation. There now are three additional campuses under the Food Recovery Network umbrella, each with its own food recovery program that shares metrics and data with the network. Brown University in Rhode Island, the University of California at Berkeley and Pomona College in California have partnered with FRN, and Simon said there are a handful of other colleges considering.

Simon said FRN has received approval from the dining manager at George Washington University in the District and hopes to start recovering food by the fall. FRN also has been in talks with American University in the District to start a chapter there.

“When we’re all united in a national movement, there’s more we can do to spread it,” he said. “We become a stronger force for change.”

FRN beat out 180 other programs/projects geared toward social entrepreneurship on July 28 and won a $15,000 prize, which Simon said will be used for new marketing materials and start-up grant offerings to other college groups.

Simon said since winning the competition, FRN has applied to become a recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. He said gaining the nonprofit status will aid the organization in obtaining grants and having greater influence to other areas considering a food recovery program.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 68 billion pounds of food goes to waste each year and 3 percent is donated or composted. Forty percent of food grown domestically is not eaten. According to the National Resource Defense Council, if that 40 percent were reduced to 25 percent, an additional 25 million Americans could be fed.

“When you see how much food is being wasted and how many [people] are struggling, it’s a no-brainer,” Simon said.

The Christian Life Center, a Riverdale-based church and Christian ministry, is one of the four places the Food Recovery Network’s University of Maryland chapter delivers food two or three times per week, Zavalij said.

Zavalij said they typically deliver 100 to 200 meals per night to the Christian Life Center for it to use during its food giveaways each Monday, in which food goes to residents who come on-site to pick up meals or is hand-delivered to elderly persons or picked up by other churches.

“They’ve been a blessing to us with the food that they bring,” said Eric Thomas, a Christian Life Center member and coordinator of the church’s food distribution program. “This is a really important service. A lot of needy families in the area come in droves. There are so many hungry people out there.”

Simon said national statistics show one in four children struggle with food insecurity, which means they are not getting enough food. In addition, one in seven people overall are in the same situation. He said that if he can change that statistic with the food re-distribution program, it’s worth pursuing full time.

“I would love to do this full time,” Simon said. “I see Food Recovery Network as so young with so much more room to grow.”

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